90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Media

Jonah Lehrer released a statement on Monday that some quotes in his book "Imagine: How Creativity Works" attributed to singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, pictured, did "not exist." (AP File Photo)

On a June day four years ago Jonah Lehrer, the brilliant – and seemingly nervous – young writer, stood before an audience at Google’s Boston headquarters to discuss his acclaimed first book, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist”, which linked neuroscience with literary brilliance.

“As a writer,” Lehrer began, “I am vaguely aware that people wrote books before Google existed, but I have no idea how. And I certainly have no idea how people existed before people could Google themselves.”

In light of Lehrer’s plummet from the pantheon of literary pop stars to the dungeon of fallen stars such as Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke – young journalists whose bylines are now forever linked to fabrication and plagiarism – the irony of those sentences is inescapable.

Lehrer, now 31, clearly found it all too easy to Google himself and to do with the material he found what most of us do. He recycled it. Again and again, in different publications. When his own words seemed inadequate to make a point in his latest book, one reviewer accused Lehrer of “borrowing (heavily)” the ideas of another writer as if they were his own. And when even that wasn’t quite enough, he made up words and put them in the mouths of others’ – or at least in the mouth of one particular person, Bob Dylan.

Huge mistake.

Lehrer stepped down Tuesday from his new, high-profile perch at The New Yorker magazine, barely hours after confessing that he had fabricated the quotes he attributed to Dylan in his best-selling book “Imagine: How Creativity Works.” The book’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, asked that it be pulled from bookstore shelves; e-book releases were also spiked.

It was the knockout blow to the shooting-star career (if you can call it that) of a journalist (if you can call him that, which I no longer do) who seemed destined for decades of greatness. The speed of Lehrer’s fall is even more stunning than his rise. He had barely joined the fabled New Yorker’s staff in June when questions arose about his grasp of journalistic ethics. The first came from influential media blogger Jim Romenesko, who reported that Lehrer’s blog posts on The New Yorker’s site had been copied – nearly word for word – from previous articles he’d written for other publications, including the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and Wired. Embarrassed, Lehrer’s New Yorker editors slapped a note on the postings saying, “We regret the duplication of material.”

This journalistic sin of “self-plagiarism” is puzzling to many readers who don’t fathom how recycling your own work can be wrong. But it is, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

Easy to explain is the fatal mistake in the “Imagine” article, where Lehrer quoted extensively from Dylan – which would have been an amazing scoop.

When Michael Moynihan, a skeptical reporter for Tablet and a self-described Dylan fanatic, set out to check the quotes, he quickly uncovered the fraud. Initially Lehrer lied, but the lies collapsed under Moynihan’s relentless digging. Confronted anew – and hearing the baying sounds of other journalists on the chase – Lehrer fessed up: “I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down.”

His resignation was inevitable. Fabrication and lying for journalists invoke the death penalty. From this day forward Lehrer’s work—assuming more is published—will carry a scarlet letter or be shelved under fiction.

But many important questions remain. The first is the aforementioned sin of self-plagiarism. What’s the big deal, many people asked in the wake of the controversy ignited by Romenesko’s findings. One critic compared it to being punished for eating out of your own refrigerator. Aren’t lecturers well-paid to repeat the same speech time after time? Countless words are shared as tweets and retweets. So why was it wrong for Lehrer to recycle his own work from one publication to another via the magic of Google?

For at least two reasons. First, readers expect the words they are reading are written specifically for them unless they are informed otherwise. To give them words written for another publication cheats them. It’s the same way that a student is considered a cheat who submits the same paper to satisfy the requirements of different classes. It’s wrong – and grounds for an “F.”

Lehrer, an honors graduate of Columbia and a Rhodes Scholar, surely understood that stricture as it pertains to academia. Yet he blithely submitted the same work to several different publications. Who can know that his success in getting away with that transgression may have tempted him to try to get away with the far greater one of outright plagiarism and, ultimately, fabrication?

The second reason this is wrong is legalistic, but important: copyright laws. Virtually every issue of every newspaper and magazine published is copyrighted by the publisher, typically a corporation. The articles belong to the publisher, not the writer; for a writer to recycle those words in another publication amounts to theft from the first.

Finally there’s the elephant-in-the-room question. Why would Lehrer do this? Cheaters such as Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke claimed to have caved under the pressure to perform on a big stage. Lehrer, the boy wonder who’d become a media darling, highly paid keynote speaker, The New Yorkers’ next star, likely felt the same. There’s a bit of the old Peter Principle involved here, where people like Lehrer fear they’ve been promoted beyond their levels of competence and must cheat to stay there.

But I think that Hamilton Nolan had it right in Gawker when he said the primary explanation is simply that “Jonah Lehrer doesn’t know how to do journalism.” Put bluntly, Lehrer isn’t a journalist. Yes, the publications where his work appeared employed journalists. And what he wrote most of the time looked like journalism. But he wasn’t a journalist. And despite his years of elite education, he didn’t learn the most fundamental lessons of journalism.

Which gets me back to Lehrer’s talk to the audience at Google’s local office four years ago where he said he was “vaguely aware that people wrote books before Google existed, but I have no idea how.” In those words he essentially admitted his ignorance of journalism. A journalist gets quotes by actually interviewing people, not Googling them. A journalist credits others for finding information that the journalist didn’t get directly. A journalist doesn’t consider Google to be a primary source. Journalists don’t “Google themselves” to find material to recycle, as Lehrer may have done.

Jonah Lehrer is an extraordinarily talented young man who has a teacher’s gift for making complex scientific knowledge comprehensible. It’s a gift I hope he can continue to develop somewhere, somehow.

But not in journalism.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that Lehrer was fired from his position at The New Yorker. In fact, he resigned. In addition, Lehrer has never delivered a TED talk.

Tags: Books

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • anonymous

    I have been a big fan of Jonah Lehrer, but the recent revealings confounded me. Thank you for this article; I now understand why the self plagiarism incident turned out to be a big deal. And yes, Lehrer is extremely talented and I hope he just doesn’t fade away.

    • janesoutham

      Mark my words: people are combing through his articles for fabricated quotes as we speak.

  • Derek

    Lehrer wasn’t fired. Lehrer resigned. Also please show me where Lehrer plagiarized “other” people. That didn’t happen.

    • janesoutham

      ACtually he plagiarized Malcolm Gladwell. That came out a few months ago.

      • Emily

        My understanding is that this is still a matter of some debate. Further investigations in the coming days and weeks, though, may help clear this up.

      • Derek

        Proof please.

  • Rachel

    You have no real knowledge of how or why and you’re days late. What a stupid article. Stop demonstrating the parasitism of journalists.

  • Danielle

    I agree with Rachel. Please stop using this news as an excuse to hold forth. People who are far better writers – and who have their facts straight – have already spoken.

  • Tex Boyle

    Just FYI, in most cases publishers don’t actually own the articles in the magazines they copyright. They own the right to publish the work. So technically a writer could sell “first time” rights, then sell “second time rights,” then film rights, and etc etc. And none of those sales would be plagiarism, as long as that status was made clear.

    • Caroline

      The New Yorker’s standard contract requires their contributors to warrant hat the articles submitted for publication haven’t been published elsewhere. So if Lehrer signed such a contract htposting his OD work would be a breach of that contract.

      • Caroline

        sorry,that’s “his old work.”

  • http://twitter.com/clarktyler Tyler Clark

    I enjoyed the book so much I bought a few copy’s and gave it away. The Author of this article seems to demonize Lehrer for Googleing his research. a statement he generalized, as I assume he did not interview Lehrer or the publisher. Worse men have fallen and later to take more prestigious callings in life:
    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history_lesson/2008/08/the_write_stuff.html

  • Emily

    Did Jonah Lehrer give a TED talk? I’m not sure that’s true.

  • DB

    While we’re correcting errors here….. Lehrer never delivered a TED talk (or multiple talks, as you report here.) When you accusing a journalist of being “promoted beyond their level of competence,” you might want to get your own facts straight. Helps with the whole credibility thing, you might say. While Jonah’s actions are hardly defensible, let’s please stick to the facts as we pontificate!

  • ECH

    I don’t believe Jonah Lehrer actually gave a TED talk.

  • http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/ Frannie Carr

    Editor’s note: Thank you to our community for noting the previous errors. We
    have updated the article to reflect these changes. If you have any other
    concerns, please contact us at opinion@wbur.org.

  • Dan

    What were the “words of others” Lehrer used as his own? I have not seen straight-up plagiarism among the charges levied against him. Please source this claim; otherwise a correction seems in order.

  • janesoutham

    Not only does Lehrer not know how to be a journalist, but he doesn’t know how to lie very well either.

    This is a devastating excerpt from Moynihan’s article:

    http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/107779/jonah-lehrers-deceptions
    Over the next three weeks, Lehrer stonewalled, misled, and, eventually, outright lied to me. Yesterday, Lehrer finally confessed that he has never met or corresponded with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager; he has never seen an unexpurgated version of Dylan’s interview for No Direction Home, something he offered up to stymie my search; that a missing quote he claimed could be found in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” cannot, in fact, be found there; and that a 1995 radio interview, supposedly available in a printed collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke, also didn’t exist.

  • janesoutham

    This article pontificates and ruminates on Lehrer. I would much prefer to see an article on the intrepid Michael Moynihan. Lehrer was well known; Moynihan was not. This is a true David and Goliath story.

    Lehrer actually had the gall to tell Moynihan to “please stop asking me” where he got the quotes.

    Lehrer’s lie- that he got the unpublished material from a special archive from Dylan’s people that was going to be used in an upcoming Scorcese documentary is truly the height of arrogance and hubris.

    Was he that dumb to realize that one quick phone call to Dylan’s reps would have exposed him?

  • Emily

    One final note concerns the suggestion that relying heavily on the internet (or more specifically Google) during research is, in itself, problematic. This doesn’t seem quite on target to me. Perhaps especially in science reporting, using the internet to access databases (via tools like Google Scholar) of online journals is really pretty essential. Misusing/fabricating/combining quotes is the problem. Please don’t blame the internet :)

  • http://twitter.com/CulturlProductn GS

    You don’t need to be trained as a journalist to know that it’s wrong (and in some cases potentially illegal) to copy other people’s writing and make up and mis-attribute quotes. The “wrongness” of such action is even taught to high schoolers.

  • Teri

    To Danielle and Rachel, who accused Fiedler and WBUR of being late: This is the first time I personally have heard of this story, and I appreciate it, as well as the fact that it has been corrected as new information surfaces. Though we may feel that we are always connected to everything, in fact even a journalist’s knowledge is always going to be limited by the bandwidth of our attention, we will always be learning new things. Therefore not knowing everything at the start is not ipso facto wrong, because it is our human situation.

  • Drahcir

    How poetic that Jonah Lehrer is in trouble for merely taking Tom Lehrer’s (no relation?) advice:

    “”I am never forget the day I
    first meet the
    great Lobachevsky.

    In one word he told me secret of
    success in
    mathematics: Plagiarize!”

    Lyrics – Tom Lehrer – Lobachevsky Lyrics”For
    many years now, Mr. Danny Kaye, who has been my particular idol since
    childbirth, has been doing a routine about the great Russian director
    Stanislavsky and the secret of success in the acting profession. And I
    thought it would be interesting to stea… to adapt this idea to the
    field of mathematics. I always like to make explicit the fact that
    before I went off not too long ago to fight in the trenches, I was a
    mathematician by profession. I don’t like people to get the idea that I
    have to do this for a living. I mean, it isn’t as though I had to do
    this, you know, I could be making, oh, 3000 dollars a year just
    teaching.

    Be that as it may, some of you may have had occasion to run into
    mathematicians and to wonder therefore how they got that way, and here,
    in partial explanation perhaps, is the story of the great Russian
    mathematician Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky.

    Who made me the genius I am today,

    The mathematician that others all quote,

    Who’s the professor that made me that way?

    The greatest that ever got chalk on his coat.

    One man deserves the credit,

    One man deserves the blame,

    And Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky is his name.

    Hi!

    Nicolai Ivanovich Lobach-

    I am never forget the day I first meet the great Lobachevsky.

    In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics:

    Plagiarize!

    Plagiarize,

    Let no one else’s work evade your eyes,

    Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,

    So don’t shade your eyes,

    But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize -

    Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’.”

  • Andrew Turner

    What is not considered even part of the story was how such a membrane-thin intellectual lightweight managed his elite education, how he became a Rhodes scholar, or how he got his prestigious job. “Proust Was a Neuroscientist”? Seriously? The stench of pretention penetrates one’s sinuses like a gas station bathroom. “Vaguely aware that people wrote books before Google existed?” Clueless. And even if it is hyperbole, it just shows how parochial his thinking is.

    Human resources folks love creatures like this one. He has all the credentials and he will get another top-shelf job once all the fuss dies down. Meanwhile autodidacts never get this kind of opportunity.

    • jk

      I am guessing you are an autodidact.

TOP